The best take-away, keep-away matchup of the entire NCAA Tournament happens Saturday when 13th-ranked West Virginia meets 14th-ranked Notre Dame in KeyBank Center.
West Virginia is the No. 1 turnover-forcing team in the nation. What’s more, the Mountaineers forced more turnovers this year than any team from a power conference in the last 15 years.
Notre Dame is the best team in the nation at protecting the basketball, making the fewest turnovers in the nation.
“Something’s got to give,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “We’re going to kick it around a little more than usual, but we have to be great tomorrow overall to win.”
Is this a bad matchup for the Mountaineers?
“They don’t let us pick,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “If you’re asking me would we have picked them? Absolutely not. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. . . . Probably about 2 o’clock tomorrow I’ll have an answer for you.”
West Virginia (27-8) is the No. 4 seed and a 2 1/2-point favorite. Notre Dame (26-9) is the No. 5 seed. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 next weekend in the West Region at San Jose, Calif. Top-seeded Villanova meets eighth-seeded Wisconsin in the second Buffalo game, an East Region matchup scheduled to start about 2:40 p.m.
West Virginia’s full-court pressing defense forces an average of 20.4 turnovers a game, and Mountaineer foes give the ball away an average of 28 percent of their possessions.
Notre Dame sends a fleet of skilled ball-handlers and passers onto the court. The Irish average only 9.3 turnovers a game and give it away only 13.8 percent of their possessions.
“They do a great job of forcing people to get out of their comfort zone,” said Notre Dame senior Steve Vasturia. “I think the way we play, we do a great job of handling the ball. . . . So I think for us the challenge is just going to be making the right decisions and not rushing. I think that’s something we’ve been very good at all season long.”
West Virginia has forced at least 10 turnovers in every game this season and has created 15 or more in 26 games. If West Virginia isn’t getting turnovers and scoring in transition, it better win the rebounding battle by a lot.
Notre Dame has made fewer than 10 turnovers in 12 of its last 13 games and has made more than 15 just once all season. That came in an 83-80 loss at Florida State on Jan. 18. The Irish turned it over 18 times.
Notre Dame says playing Florida State was good preparation for the Mountaineers.
“We’ve kind of compared them to Florida State a little bit,” said Irish point guard Matt Farrell. “Being in the passing lanes, contesting full-court.”
“I think there’s a little more havoc” with West Virginia, Farrell said. “You got guys everywhere. We need guys to be great receivers. Everybody that’s on the floor needs to be a receiver.”
The Irish beat Florida State in two subsequent meetings, making just 13 and nine turnovers, respectively.
Getting the ball over half-court is only half the battle for the Irish. Breaking the press then getting conservative often is a bad idea. That allows West Virginia to set up its trapping half-court defense. The Mountaineers use 6-foot-9 forward Nathan Adrian at the top of a 1-3-1 half-court defense, and put two 6-8 wings on the sides, creating a wall that pushes the opposing offense too far out.
Teams like to be aggressive and attack the basket after breaking the press. The risk, however, is becoming too rushed and making bad decisions while trying to finish near the rim.
“I’ve got really pretty sharp guys and high basketball IQ guys,” Brey said. “So I think our thing is, when we get through it, are we looking to attack? Are we looking to run offense?”
While Notre Dame averaged a healthy 78 points a game, it ranked in the middle of the pack of the Atlantic Coast Conference in terms of the pace of its offense.
“If you look at our pace, we have been kind of a situational running team,” Brey said. “We’ve done a good job when we don’t have numbers in transition, we kind of back that thing out and make you guard us for a while. And we’re going to have to be disciplined with that. Now that’s easier said than done, because they’re really good in the half court. They face-guard you, they run and trap you. I think it’s going to be a feeling-out process for us tomorrow in the first half.”